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More vegetables, better broth? We tasted a slew of products and discovered that, in most cases, the answer is no.
Published Jan. 1, 2015. Appears in Cook's Illustrated May/June 2008, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 16: Vegetarian Essentials
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What You Need To Know
If chicken broth is supposed to taste like chicken, and beef broth like beef, it stands to reason that vegetable broth should taste like vegetables. After all, this ingredient’s core purpose is the same as that of any other broth: to augment the flavors of and add depth to dishes such as soups, stews, sauces, and risottos. Vegetable broth is also often called on as a meatless stand-in for the chicken or beef kind—and while it shouldn’t taste like meat, it should provide a complex, balanced, unassuming backbone of flavor to a wide range of dishes.
The problem is that most commercial vegetable broths do neither of those things. When we tasted 10 products several years ago, we found that the vast majority were awful—sour, cloyingly sweet, or bitter. In fact, we could recommend only one product from that tasting, a broth from Swanson that was loaded with salt (940 milligrams per cup, about 40 percent of your daily allowance) and a slew of flavor-boosting additives.
Since then, however, dozens more vegetable broth products have popped up on supermarket shelves. Like commercial meat-based broths, these are sold not just in liquid form but also as powders, pastes, concentrates, and cubes. Would any of these new products be worthier of a place in our pantry?
Overwhelmed by the options, we scooped up 25 nationally available products that represented every style category. (We also held a separate tasting of low-sodium vegetable broths; see related content.) Most were billed as vegetable broths, while four bore labels reading “no chicken” or “vegan chicken flavored,” indicating that they are engineered to be meatless imitations of poultry-based products. We then narrowed the pack, eliminating broths that had more than 750 milligrams of sodium per serving and holding taste-offs within brands. In the end, we had 10 finalists, which we sampled warmed up straight from the package (when products needed to be reconstituted, we followed manufacturer directions), as well as in vegetable soup and Parmesan risotto. The last application, where the broth reduces considerably during cooking, would be a good measure of its flavor when concentrated.
Our hope that these products were any better than the last lot dimmed with our first sips of plain broth. Though the broths ranged dramatically in color and body, in the main they fell into two broad flavor categories: those that tasted “weirdly savory,” with “super MSG impact,” and those with actual vegetable flavor, albeit mostly unappealing. At best, these latter broths tasted bland (like “dishwater”); at worst, they ranged from overly bitter to horribly sweet (like “stewed socks and sugar”) to downrig...
Everything We Tested
With barely any vegetables, this powder didn’t suffer from some of the off-flavors that plagued more vegetable-heavy products. In risotto, numerous tasters commented on its saltiness, but it also made the dish “very flavorful.” In soup, it lent “great savory depth.” Another bonus: It’s cheap and easy to store.
Pear and cane juices and three forms of carrot made this liquid broth notably sweet, particularly when reduced in risotto. While some found that it contributed “nice vegetal flavor” to soup, in the main it was “neutral” and “inoffensive.”
Tasters described soup and risotto made with this reconstituted paste as “earthy,” “mushroomy,” and “carroty.” While some tasters found it too salty (the “reduced sodium” label refers to its sodium content in relation to its regular vegetable base), most thought it provided a savory base that let “other flavors come through.”
Recommended with reservations
Some tasters picked up on the onions and carrots in this liquid broth, finding it sweet, while others noted slightly “sour” or “bitter” aftertastes. Most agreed with the taster who called it “nothing offensive; nothing stellar.”
With yeast extract as its first ingredient, this powder gave soup a “funky packaged soup taste,” but some found it “nicely neutral” when reduced in risotto.
This broth made risotto taste “too carroty”; in soup it was mainly “boring,” though a few found that it contributed a “very vegetal taste.”
While a few deemed this broth “savory” and “complex” in recipes, the majority felt that its “roasted vegetable flavor” was out of place. “It feels heavy and tastes oniony,” one taster said. Others picked up on “bitter celery notes.”
Like the Orrington Farms powder, this paste was loaded with salt and yeast extract that gave it “depth” in recipes—but it lacked the winner’s balance. It’s “a salt bomb,” tasters said, comparing it to “Lipton Cup-a-Soup.” Each tub makes 3 1/2 cups of broth, an amount that doesn’t match most recipes.
Some found this liquid concentrate “pretty decent” for adding “herbal” notes to food. Most agreed that it was “too sweet”; others picked up a “canned soup flavor.” The thick, bouncy texture of this concentrate made it difficult to squeeze a small amount into a measuring spoon.
With no added salt (some salt occurs naturally in vegetables) and the most sugar, this liquid broth made soup taste like “cheap marinara sauce.” In risotto, it was “awful” with “weird onion flavor” and too much carrot. It also had an “unpleasant, bitter finish.” (Note: The company slightly reformulated its broth just after our tasting—making it even sweeter, adding herbs, and lowering the sodium. We tried it and still do not recommend this broth.)
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.